Sunday, October 17, 2010

The 10 Best Reasons that Magazine Lists Are Worthless



A couple days ago, film critic Roger Ebert noted on his Twitter account that "Guardian picks #1 romantic film of all time. All such lists are bullshit."

He is, of course, correct. It being Twitter with a 140-character limit, we're left to fill in our own reasons for why he believes them to be BS. However, selecting the best of anything is likely a subjective exercise; it's also a waste of the reader's time, unless she just wants to get suggestions for possible romantic films to rent. (When it comes to reviewing films, I'm always reminded of writer Harlan Ellison's comment about film quality. Ellison is both knowledgable about film and unafraid of telling it like he sees it. But even someone as expert and opinionated as he admitted – and I'm paraphrasing here – that at some point, for many films, he simply either likes it or doesn't.

That said, I happen to agree with Ebert (and, of course, Ellison). And I want to expand upon his comment to fit in one of the themes of this blog: magazines. How often do you see a magazine with a special cover story shouting "10 Best Rock Songs of All Time" or "Readers Pick Top Senators" or whateverthehell? And did you buy the issue? Read the "article"? Were you impressed that somehow, this one magazine – out of the thousands published regularly – managed to find the absolutely best dive bars in Chicago or toughest bosses in the world or the sexiest chefs?

Here's the deal. Big list features are, to borrow an artful word from Mr. Roger Ebert, bullshit. With the arguable exception of consumer research publications (Consumer Reports, for example) or car magazines – which perform real tests on products and produce a hierarchy of quality – these lists are almost complete silliness, often the result less of editorial inspiration and more of budget cuts. So instead of doing an investigative piece of journalism (which would cost money, might anger advertisers and readers, and could be a legal liability), or instead of sending a good writer to report on some distant event, the editors either compile a list from talking to other editors, or they corral feedback from some of the magazine's friends, or they assign it to a junior staffer (who maybe conducts a readers' survey), and the result is a "best of" list that is trumped up as if it's got some actual claim to legitimacy.

So, my Top 10 List of Reasons that Magazine Lists Are Worthless:

1) They're lazy.
2) They're cowardly.
3) They're cheap.
4) They're meaningless.
5) They give a false sense of information.
6) Just like the magazines, I have to pad the rest of my top-10 list so that it is complete.
7) Again.
8) Still with me?
9) Almost complete.
10) They're unimaginative.

So the next time some publisher is trying to dupe you into appreciating a "Top 20 Best..." of anything, ask yourself: Do you really care what a bunch of editors cobbled together from a bull session in the lunch room, asking each other what they think were the all-time greatest science-fiction films? Does that really mean anything to you? Or would you rather read a collection of articles, perhaps by people like Harlan Ellison and Roger Ebert, explaining why they think a particular film is noteworthy? Or does your money mean nothing to you?
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